Category Archives: Reflections

Reflections on how we feel and how the mission is changing us

Even the Slightest Contributions Make a Difference

It is amazing how much a trip to South Texas can impact one’s life. I have just completed my third season with Beyond Borders and I feel heaviness in my heart. This is partly due to the feeling that no matter how much we, and others, volunteer their time and skills to assist with search and rescue missions, identification, and providing resources to aid in human survival, there will always be more work to be done. As long as people continue to seek refuge in the United States or aspire for the opportunities that are available here — with a severe hindrance from doing so legally — law enforcement and the community will be overwhelmed by this crisis. In addition, it is difficult to see the stark contrast between the privileges I have that so many others do not. I cannot imagine risking my life in pursuit of another, knowing very well that I may not survive the journey. Eddie Canales, director of the South Texas Human Rights Center, gave a presentation about the mission and goals of his organization. I remember him mentioning that many of these people do not wish to leave their home. There is pride, loyalty, and familiarity in the places we grow up that really isn’t replaceable. Many even try to come work temporarily to send money back home or return to their families with more financial stability. There are many reasons that this trip has provided alternative perspectives regarding migration policies which I think is extremely valuable as I hear the various, inescapable opinions portrayed by news and media sources.

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One of Dr. Latham’s goals for involving students in this humanitarian work is to open their minds and hearts to different perspectives, and prompt them to become better global citizens as they move on beyond the program at UIndy. I applied for this program with the hope of experiencing humanitarian aspects of anthropology to see whether or not this was a passion I wanted to pursue as a future career. I was so naïve to what that entailed before coming on these trips. I can genuinely say that I have gathered a diverse understanding of the border crisis through my multiple Beyond Borders trips.

Exhumation season in 2018.
Exhumation season in 2018.

My first trip was a purely exhumation-based season. I was able to witness the treatment of the non-citizen decedents through their burial conditions and method and documentation of interment. I realized that there is no upheld standard of investigation into migrant identities. There is no attempt at contacting families or repatriation, so forensic scientists and volunteer organizations are needed in order to facilitate that process.

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My second trip consisted of more community interaction and involvement as I met volunteers from the South Texas Human Rights Center, visited and donated to the Humanitarian Respite Center which helps individuals who were detained and released as refugees to reach to their destinations, and tended to water stations on private ranchlands. Furthermore, we conducted forensic archaeological survey and exhumations in the Sacred Hearts Cemetery where hundreds of migrants are buried without a name.

This trip was very different than the previous. I discovered how delicate and complicated it can be to communicate with ranch owners, law enforcement, and community volunteers while working within the confines of the law. Very little land in South Texas is publicly accessible, so I realized how much time and effort it takes to build relationships with landowners to receive access for conducting search and recoveries. It was also physically exhausting and mentally taxing to walk the very same routes that many migrants had taken before us. Truthfully, it is quite likely that there were living migrants who saw us in the brush even though we couldn’t see them. When working with skeletonized remains, a forensic anthropologist must be able to separate their emotions from the scientific analyses or it would be too much to bear. Yet, when we were out there walking in their shoes, there was no

A migrant's eyeglasses left behind.
A migrant’s eyeglasses left behind.

separating it. We saw personal effects, shoeprints, empty food and water packages. Deputy White shared some unsettling and saddening stories of living and dead individuals that he’d encountered on searches over numerous years as a sheriff and volunteer. Eddie (STHRC) and Rafael (Desert Angels) shared stories of family members who they’d helped find their loved ones, dead or alive, and how sometimes the process of gaining legal permissions to search an area meant the difference between life and death of an individual. It is amazing that they have the heart to dedicate their lives to this work.

I am very fortunate to have had the opportunity to gain a more holistic understanding of the border crisis. I hope that anyone reading these blog posts feel that they’ve gathered a deeper understanding as well. I must always remember that even the slightest contributions make a difference, and that we cannot do this alone.

 

Sammi

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Hasta La Próxima

I can’t believe it’s only been one week since our first day in Falfurrias…I also can’t believe how much of an impact just one week can have. 

Being able to work with Eddie at the South Texas Human Rights Center was a pleasure and a privilege. We got to see and be a part of the impact that the water stations placed by the Center makes on the community. Not only are these stations providing lifesaving water to passing migrants, they also provide an outlet for the community to participate in this humanitarian work. As we worked to refill and repair these water stations, we noticed in every single one that members of the community — not directly affiliated with the South Texas Human Rights Center — had been adding their own water and other beverages. This gesture showed me that there were people in the community that were taking their own steps to helping with the humanitarian crisis at the border and that was extremely impactful to see. It’s so easy to get caught up in the negativity that is so prevalent in the news and on social media that you forget how caring and positive people really are. This trip really highlighted the importance of a community that supports each other and the hardships that impact one another. 

Eddie holding an empty migrant's water bottle.
Eddie holding an empty migrant’s water bottle

A huge part of our January 2020 trip was performing search and recoveries. We went to multiple ranches and walked for miles through thick brush and sandy terrain trying to find migrant pathways. We used a lot of different skills to maximize our time in these ranches such as line searches, mapping, and our knowledge of osteology; knowing the difference between human and non-human osseous material is invaluable here given the amount of wildlife that exists in Texas ranchlands. 

Searching in the brush
Searching in the brush

A part of this trip that was significantly different from our May 2019 trip was our vast interaction with different groups of people that became involved in our search and recovery days. This was a significant part of the trip for me because I got to learn a lot about the different ways in which people have become involved with the border crisis. This trip we worked with Border Patrol, we performed a search with another humanitarian group (Desert Angels) and we interacted with the media as well as family members who had missing loved ones that had crossed the border. All three of these interactions were very different from each other but they all had a significant impact on my understanding of the border crisis. Yet, what affected me the most was meeting the mother of a son who had gone missing in the brush. While her heartbreak was most evident, she had nothing but kind words for us and continued to thank us for any time we were able to give to her to try and bring some closure to her family. These are the interactions that propel my want to continue in the field and use the skills I am privileged enough to learn to help others.

The team with Rafael of the Desert Angels
The team with Rafael of the Desert Angels

I cannot talk about this trip without mentioning Sheriff Deputy Don White. In our five work days we had in Falfurrias, he was by our side each day helping us repair water stations or walking alongside us in the brush. Not only is his knowledge of tracking, wildlife, and sense of direction invaluable to the success of our team, but his positive attitude and genuine care for the wellbeing of each and every one of us made it that much easier to keep one foot in front of the other. There are no words to express how grateful I am to have met and worked alongside such a dedicated individual. 

Sheriff Deputy Don White
Sheriff Deputy Don White

Ultimately, I am so appreciative for the amazing team I had the opportunity to be a part of. While I get to see Sammi, Tanya, Sidney, and Dr. Latham (almost) every day during the school year, getting to spend time with them in this setting is just another reason why I want to continue to pursue the field of Anthropology. I am so excited to continue to learn with and from them every day. 

The team on Day 1
The team on Day 1

Although it was a short trip, what I learned in that time and the experiences I was fortunate enough to have will stay with me for a lifetime. 

Alba

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Day 5: Until Next Time

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The six of us focused diligently on our line search with each step we took into the sinking sand. The thicket was so dense that we could not walk in a straight line without compasses. The thorny bushes extended outward and clustered in groups; dangerously spiked tree-limbs slouched to the ground causing us to duck, twist, and maneuver underneath them to pass through. We could not ignore these spaces and walk around them or we weren’t being entirely thorough. What if a bone was dragged months ago by carnivores into a dense patch of vegetation out of plain view?

Wrist compasses to help maintain directionality.
Wrist compasses to help maintain directionality.

These areas are often too dense to see into from a distance. Our mental exhaustion was unquestionable. Our eyes swept the ground from left to right, alternating between farsighted and nearsighted focusing as we partitioned the different vegetation, rock, insects, animal burrows, and other potential safety hazards. We simply could not let our guard down during this process while we looked for human bone and any migrant’s personal affects. The wind was blowing violently which kicked up sand and further obstructed our vision. Our hats and glasses shaded from the sun but didn’t seem to block the sand from getting in our eyes, nose, and mouth and sticking to our Chapstick. The air was a humid 87 degrees for our last day of searches and dang did we feel it! Out here, it’s a different kind of beast.

Sammi and Tanya investigating the contents of abandoned backpacks, searching for ID and info.
Sammi and Tanya investigating the contents of abandoned backpacks, searching for ID and info.

During our first search of the day, Dr. Latham asked us to wait up while she investigated an area of interest. A minute later we all went over to discover that she’d found a recent camp-out. There were numerous backpacks. The fabric was fairly recent, so we unzipped them to find they were filled with non-perishable foods, prescription glasses, toiletries, electrolyte pills, fresh trash bags, and clothing. The trash bags are quite utilitarian: used for ground cover while sleeping, shelter, raincoats, blankets, and any other creative adaptation. You could sense the weight this had on our hearts once we realized these were signs of the recently living. We even found store-bought tortillas in some of the backpacks that just expired a week ago and were free of mold. A group came through here recently, far more prepared than most, and hopefully they did survive.

Following Deputy White to set up another line search
Following Deputy White to conduct another line search.

Today was our last day of searches and we had finally truly mastered our system. I am in disbelief that this is our final workday. We covered 5 miles of walking distance through extremely thick brush on 2 ranches. The average walking speed according to Deputy White is around 0.7/0.8 mph when conducting line searches through the South Texas thicket. Yet, he determined we were covering ground at about a rate of 1.7 mph. Deputy White has been conducting searches for decades, so it was invaluable to have his insight in the area. The technique seemed to be as follows: start with a coordinate of known migrant activity, or one that hadn’t been searched in a while. These could be prioritized due to 911 calls with GPS coordinates, some kind of insider intel, previously discovered pathways, or unsearched areas on a ranch that we had permission to enter into. Then spread out and sweep from east-west and west-east directions until you discover a sign or lack thereof. This is a vastly complex subject with various levels of involvement and organization, so we were largely there help out wherever we were needed. I wholeheartedly wish we could assist more often, but it’s all very complicated with this being private land.

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Dinner at Jalisco’s

Today has been my favorite day of the trip so far. Regardless of the treacherous terrain, the hardest part was saying goodbye. Goodbye to the Texas landscape: although it feels like a terrifying beach where everything is trying to harm you, it has been a genuinely beautiful sight to behold. Goodbye Eddie Canales: we have been truly inspired by your passion for saving human lives, your stories, your leadership, your contagious laugh, and your friendship. Last but not least, goodbye Deputy Don White: I cannot even begin to describe how much you have contributed to this life changing experience for our team. We are all indebted to you and look up to you so fondly.

Each trip is one in a million and is unpredictable in the best ways. This may end up being my last trip, but it won’t be the last for Beyond Borders; so speaking on behalf of future teams: goodbye all… until next time.

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Sammi

 

 

 

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